Interview by Joseph Slattery, European Student Think Tank

Interview with German Political scientist Prof. Dr. Tanja Börzel. She is professor of political science and holds the Chair for European Integration at the Otto-Suhr-Institute for Political Science, Freie Universität Berlin. She also directs the Cluster of Excellence “Contestations of the Liberal Script” (SCRIPTS). Her most important publications include “The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Regionalism” (Oxford University Press 2016, co-edited with Thomas Risse), “Effective Governance Under Anarchy. Institutions, Legitimacy, and Social Trust in Areas of Limited Statehood,” with Thomas Risse (Cambridge University Press 2021), and “Why Noncompliance. The Politics of Law in the European Union” (Cornell University Press 2021).

Joseph Slattery: What are the biggest policy challenges facing the EU today? 

Tanja Börzel: This is a huge question! A few months ago, I would have said migration. With Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine migration has become even more of an issue. It is part of the biggest challenge the EU has been facing in decades – the breakdown of the European security architecture.

[The war in Ukraine] ‘ is part of the biggest challenge the EU has been facing in decades – the breakdown of the European security architecture

JS: How would you rate Germany’s response to the Ukraine war?

TB: The German government has been very cautious in its response, to put it nicely. In the end, it has come around and joined other Western countries in imposing sanctions on Russia and providing heavy weapons to Ukraine. But its initial reluctance if not opposition has been – rightly I think – interpreted as Germany being reluctant to shoulder the economic costs. This reluctance goes beyond energy dependence. Sanctioning and isolating Putin internationally means a radical break (Zeitenwende) with a central plank of German foreign policy rooted in the famous “Ostpolitik” during the Cold War based on the idea of change through engagement (Wandel durch Annäherung). A lot of people like to forget, though, that engagement meant more than trade. Moreover, (nuclear) deterrence was the counterpart of detention. What we are currently debating in Germany is not only to sever our economic ties with Russia but to reinvest in our army to strengthen our defence capacities. These are important issues that require a broad political debate. What I find wanting, however, is a communication strategy that explains to Ukraine and our international partners why Germany is so at pains in implementing the “Zeitenwende” Chancellor Scholz announced in the German Bundestag on February 27, 2022.

JS: Do you think it is a good thing that, since the outbreak of the war, Sweden and Finland are now considering NATO membership, and countries across Europe are remilitarising so quickly? 

TB: Are we really seeing a remilitarization in Europe only because Germany decided to equip its military adequately? And can you blame the Swedes and Fins for seeking protection in a military defence alliance against an aggressive autocrat with imperial ambitions who lives next door? 

JS: You recently published a book, ‘Why Noncompliance: The Politics of Law in the European Union’. In the book, you state how noncompliance has not gone up over time, despite EU enlargement and the reduction of policy areas where member states have a veto. What do you think are the most effective ways for the EU to ensure compliance from its member states?

TB: The EU is not the key to the problem of non-compliance in the EU. That has not only to do with the fact that the EU has very limited instruments to enforce EU Law. The commission is the guardian of the treaties, but the implementation and enforcement of EU law is the responsibility of the member states. The treaties are quite clear here. The infringement proceedings can be conceived of as instruments of enforcement, but in fact, that’s not how they were designed. Their purpose is not to enforce EU law. The underlying assumption is that member states agree to EU law, and if they don’t comply with it afterward, it is not because they don’t want to. It is a matter of capacity or a matter of different interpretations of what compliance entails. The infringement proceedings with the Court of the European Union at the very end were designed to deal with disputes over the applicability of EU law. Is it a case to which EU law applies, are national regulations already sufficient, and does a member state really have to enact new laws in order to comply with an EU directive? These are the kind of issues EU institutions were tasked to deal with – not enforcing EU law on member states that have no intention of complying with EU laws. The reason why compliance has not increased but rather decreased has nothing to do with the EU being more effective at enforcing EU law. First, member states have developed better capacities in complying with EU law, particularly new member states that joined in the 2000s. Central Eastern European countries in the accession process built up capacities that they need to comply with EU law.

‘Hungary and Poland do not contest the applicability of EU laws, they contest their validity. Not only their validity, but increasingly the authority and the legitimacy of the EU to enact such laws to begin with’

Second, and somewhat ironically, big member states can afford to not comply. With the extension of EU membership, the number of smaller member states grew, which simply don’t have the power to resist compliance with EU law, not because of EU institutions, but because of power asymmetries among the member states. 

JS: This year, there have been some high-profile non-compliance disagreements between Hungary and the EU, and Poland and the EU, regarding ‘discriminatory’ LGBT legislation. The EU considers these new laws in Hungary and Poland to violate the EU’s fundamental human rights, as well as other business and freedom of expression laws. Could you voice your opinion on these issues in Poland and Hungary, and assess the EU’s response?

TB: The challenge of these issues is the new quality of non-compliance. The whole EU integration project has been based on the voluntary compliance of member states with EU law that is legally binding. EU law is superior to national law. The idea was never that the EU would have to enforce these laws against the resistance of member states. The EU would give member states more time, it would help clarify the meaning of laws, and help build capacity in the member states. But it was never about overcoming a fundamental opposition to EU law. Hungary and Poland do not contest the applicability of EU laws; they contest their validity – and increasingly the authority and the legitimacy of the EU to enact such laws. So, this is a completely new type of non-compliance that has not been dealt with in the past, because it has not been an issue before. We never had member states that persistently contested the validity of EU law as such. Existing instruments are simply not up to deal with this new quality of non-compliance. As I said before, they were designed to assist member states who were in principle prepared to comply. These instruments have been quite effective in helping member states comply. They are not working when it comes to principled non-compliance. The Commission has tried to reconstruct issues of non-compliance with fundamental principles, e.g., violations of press freedom, as a violation of commercial law. But this does not get to the heart of the problem. So, I think it is futile to use EU compliance instruments in these cases of non-compliance. These issues have to be dealt with on a political level. What I think the EU should do, as Mark Rutte said, is tell Poland and Hungary that if they don’t like the fundamental principles of the European Union, nobody forces them to stay in the European Union. There is the door. It is your choice. You are part of the EU as a legal community, you knew what you were getting yourself into. If you don’t like it, you can leave….

‘If you want to become a member of the European Union, you have to accept LGBTQ+ rights! If you don’t like it, forget about membership of the EU.’

Collecting vast amounts of money and not complying with the basic rules of the games… is just unacceptable. But that is a political decision, not a legal decision. LGBTQIA+ rights are a case in point. Not only for Poland and Hungary. Look at Georgia. Georgia is considered a model country when it comes to Europeanization, and it has huge aspirations for membership in the European Union. At the same time, the country seems to have serious issues with LGBTQUIA+ rights, and the current government is adamantly opposed to them. At the same time, Georgia formally applied for membership in March this year. You have to make up your mind. If you want to become a member of the European Union, you have to accept LGBTQ+ rights! If you don’t like it, forget about membership in the EU. Countries that want to become members or who want to remain members of the European Union, have to accept the fundamental rules of the game. If they don’t want that, we won’t force them. But then they should deal with the consequences and leave.

‘If they don’t like the fundamental principles of the European Union, nobody is forcing them to stay in the European Union. There is the door. It is your choice’

Boris Johnson is as right-wing as Orban or Kaczyński, but at least he is consequential. He decided to go for Brexit, and 51% of the Brits went along with it, and that’s just how democracy works. The difference between the UK, Poland, and Hungary is the fact that the public in Hungary and Poland are much more pro Europe than Britain. People don’t vote for the Orbans and Kaczyńskis of the world because they are anti-EU. They vote for them for different reasons, living with the fact that they are anti-EU. If you called their bluff, I’m not so sure we would have a Hungarian or Polish exit. Why does the EU not tell people who don’t like LGBTIQ+ rights that these minority rights are part and parcel of the fundamental principles that the EU has been built around? So, like it or not, this is what you need to comply with. Compliance doesn’t always mean you like what you comply with. But you accept the validity of the laws that you adopted. Whether you like them or not is not the point. 

JS: COP26 just happened. Reception of the conference has been mixed, with praise and criticism being levelled at promising pledges and a lack of ambition respectively. What can the EU do to ensure that member states meet their climate change policy commitments? 

TB: A lot of people argue that it’s too little too late. But what is the alternative? What makes the EU work is that it is able to have member states not only agree on the lowest common denominator but also engage in some upgrading of the common interest. This hasn’t gone far enough, but it went beyond the lowest common denominator solution. That’s the good news. At the same time, the EU approaches climate change merely as a regulatory policy. What is required is binding regulations. But these regulations have huge distributive consequences. There is a social question of climate change that needs to be addressed. There is redistribution among member states, but also within member states. It is the same at the global level. And that is really the problem. I think everybody agrees that something needs to be done, but how we actually deal with the redistributive issues that arise remains an open question. What we have learned from climate change is that a lot of policies are not only regulatory. Trying to address them as regulatory challenges, and then making sure states comply with them, won’t do the trick if we don’t deal with the redistributive issues entailed in the regulatory policies. 

‘There is a social question of climate change that needs to be addressed’

JS: Europe attempting to spread its values and rules through methods like aid conditionality has led to accusations of moral, or western, imperialism by some civil society groups in non-EU states. What do you think is the most effective way for the EU to convince partner countries to adopt so-called ‘European’ rules and values?  

TB: That comes back to Hungary, Poland, and Georgia – I don’t think the EU should impose its values on anyone. That’s not only a normative point but also an empirical finding: the EU cannot force countries into democracy. What the EU can do is support democratizing forces within countries. The EU has quite sophisticated instruments to empower domestic forces in societies to push for reforms that embody the values that the EU seeks to protect and promote. But how far can you go in supporting these forces when you deal with autocratic, repressive regimes, such as Belarus or Egypt? If you support democratic forces in an authoritarian country, this is very likely to result in instability. Instability creates negative effects. Migration is only one of them. The EU faces a democratization-stability dilemma conditionality is not going to resolve. Moreover, conditionality is a good thing, as long as it doesn’t apply to basic humanitarian aid. Finally, conditionality has to be credible and does not involve double standards. You must not treat countries differently, depending on how important they are in terms of economic or geopolitical issues.. Conditionality, if it is credible, is a very powerful tool in empowering domestic opposition forces against autocratic regimes. That means that the incentives need to be strong enough and need to be applied consistently. Here the EU’s record is, at best, mixed.

‘I don’t think the EU should impose its values on anyone (…) What the EU can do is support democratizing forces within countries’

JS: One of your lectures at the Freie Uni in Berlin is titled ‘The EU as a Political Community’. After the trials of the pandemic, with the huge stimulus spending, disagreements over how to allocate these funds, the EU’s combined vaccine purchasing, and the consequent frustration at the slow start to the vaccine campaign, do you think the EU is more or less united as a political community since Covid, and why?

TB: Definitely more united. I agree that the initial, instinctive response to Covid at the beginning was, ‘let’s close the borders’. A nationalistic instinct. But it didn’t take too long before Europeans got their act together. They reopened borders and tried to coordinate policies. And given that the EU has hardly any competencies in public health, it’s amazing what the member states, together with the commission, have been able to pull off. It’s not only about buying vaccines at prices that give poorer countries like Bulgaria access. It’s also about the economic recovery. The Next Generation Europe – compared to the German programme, it’s ridiculously small, but that’s not the point. The point is that the member states agreed on 750 billion of grants and loans that entail a certain mutualisation of debts, which is completely against the treaties, in my view. They gave up on the strict austerity that they had pursued during the Euro crisis. They agreed to increase the resources of the Commission. They agreed on a whole number of issues that, taken together, move the EU closer to a fiscal union. 3 years ago, this would have been completely unthinkable. So, I think that Covid is an example of the EU being remarkably united. Compare it to the Euro crisis. In the end, they managed. But if you look at the attempts of the EU to manage the Covid crisis, the EU was much faster at getting its act together to come up with a rather forceful response. Particularly given the competence the EU has in the area, and the tax and spending power that the EU has. In that regard, Covid is a positive example of the EU being a political union where solidarity trumps previously held concerns. It was a clear sign of solidarity. Unlike in the migration crisis, which is still a disaster.

But the real test case for the EU as a political community has been Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Security and defence have been the area where member states used to be the least united. Putin was not the only one to be surprised at how swiftly the EU agreed on one pack of sanctions after the other.

‘Covid is a positive example of the EU being a political union where solidarity trumps previously held concerns. It was a clear sign of solidarity’

JS: Is inequality destroying democracy? 

TB: Inequality is a major, if not the major challenge to democracy. I’m not sure whether democracy will be destroyed by inequality, it depends on how democracy will deal with inequality. For the longest time, democracy has not paid enough attention to the growing income inequality within societies. Governments need to tackle the issue! Climate change is likely to further increase social inequality. And so will the sanctions against Putin’s regime. There is a new social question that needs to be addressed. And we will see whether non-democracies are better at dealing with the redistributive consequences of climate change. China claims that its model works better. I am not so sure, but democracies need to tackle the issue of social inequality.

‘For the longest time, democracy has not paid attention to the growing income inequality within societies, and they need to do something about it!’

JS: The elections in Germany, Czechia, and Slovenia have seen populist parties (AFD, ANO, and SDS respectively) lose popularity. Do you think populism is on the decline in Europe? 

TB: I think a lot of democracies are bouncing back.. There is a growing number of countries where the opposition parties have finally got their acts together. The only thing that brings them together is the desire to get rid of the right-wing thugs that have been ruining their country for an extended period of time. I think Brexit has helped because it has demonstrated what kind of damage populist governments can do. I’m not sure whether it’s on the decline, after all, Orban is just one his fourth term. But the rise of populist parties in Europe has been greatly exaggerated, and so has its impact on European integration. In that regard, the glass is half full, rather than half empty. 

JS: How should Europe position itself in relation to the various ideas for democratic cooperation?

TB: The problem for the European Union is that as a system of multi-level governance, it is very hard to democratise using the same standards and mechanisms that you would use at the level of the nation-state. And even at the nation-state level, one could question to what extent representative democracy is sufficient to generate enough legitimacy to make politics work. I think the EU should support attempts of the member states in strengthening democracy at the domestic level.

‘The problem is that the EU, as a system of multi-level governance, is very hard to democratise such a system using the same standards and mechanisms that you would use at the level of the nation state’

Vivien A. Schmidt once said, ‘the Democratic deficit of the EU doesn’t reside at the Eu level, it resides within the member states’. The EU system of multilevel governance is contributing to a decline in the democratic quality of politics by allowing member state governments to delegate controversial decisions to the EU level and take decisions there, depoliticising them. That’s a major criticism from right-wing, and left-wing, populists. You delegate decision-making competencies to non-majoritarian institutions, and to independent agencies like the ECB. Certain decisions they take should be rather taken by the member states. Instead of calling for more competencies, the EU should ask for more money to exercise its existing competencies. Not all the problems of the world can be simply solved by giving more power to Brussels. Delegating more competencies to EU institutions has undermined trust in democracy, and the democratic quality in their member states. The EU should exercise restraint, and support member state attempts to strengthen local democracy and have decisions taken, or communicated, at the domestic level, rather than shifting ever more competencies to Brussels. 

JS: What do you think are some of the EU’s biggest successes of the past 5-10 years?

TB: The way the EU has handled the Covid crisis. This has been successful. We have addressed the crisis; we have further developed the EU in a way that will help us manage crises in the future. Particularly compared to migration, which is a complete policy failure. We will see whether the united stance of the EU against Putin will be successful in ending Putin’s war against Ukraine.

JS: Do you think it is a good idea for the EU to continue to expand and absorb new member states?

TB: I think the EU has a membership policy. Article 50 states that every European state can apply for membership. This applies to Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. The issue rather is to what extent countries are willing to accept the fundamental principles of the EU and comply with them. At the moment, none of the current candidate countries is close. The EU should support democratising forces in countries, particularly those who want to become members, stressing that they also have to accept issues they don’t like, e.g. LGBTQ+ rights, if they want their country to join the EU in the future. The EU needs to be honest and transparent about its criteria, and be consistent in the ways it applies conditionality, and once Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova are ready, they should join, by all means.

‘The EU should support democratising forces in countries, particularly those who want to become members, which includes telling forces, civil society, etc in countries like Georgia that they have to accept LGBTQ+ rights, or they can forget about membership of the European Union’

JS: What advice would you give politics and international relations students to succeed?

TB: Ask big questions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may also like